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“Everyone has a right to be freely themselves fully” – Director Amanda Nell Eu Talks Tiger Stripes

6 min read
Tiger Stripes

Amanda Nell Eu's debut full-length feature Tiger Stripes explores the horrors of puberty and womanhood, intertwining reality and myth. Bringing home the Critics' Week Grand Prix at Cannes in 2023, it finds its heroine in Zaffar, a 12-year-old Malaysian girl dealing with her first period and some unexpected changes to her body, in a struggle against the judgment of her community.

Ahead of its UK release on 14th June, Tiger Stripes has proved a hit among audiences and was selected as the Malaysian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. Before it hits our shores, FILMHOUNDS caught up with Amanda Nell Eu to discuss her directorial debut.

Tiger Stripes is a riot. Brutal and necessary, honest and savage. I've been reading a bit about ‘coming of rage' films, and it fits the description quite well. What led you to make Tiger Stripes

I grew up in , then I grew up in the UK, and then I moved back here [Malaysia] in my late 20s and started making short films. I think part of it was about figuring out my identity as a Malaysian again because I didn't speak like everyone here. Even at times I had people tell me that I wasn't Malaysian, I should leave the country, go back to the UK. That really hurt, and I think I started making these films about these characters that were outsiders and relating to a lot of folklore and the genre to play with that.

I realised a lot of our folk characters, or at least the monsters, were women. And so I made short films based around these characters, feeling that I could relate to them quite a lot. They were kind of my heroes. And then through those shorts, out came Tiger Stripes. I wanted to explore the story of a young girl who has to carry all the baggage of what is expected of her as a female, as an adult, and as a woman. But also with a sense of humour as she turns into an actual monster and challenging that notion of what a monster is.

The Malaysian jungle almost feels like an extra character in the film. Can you talk about your relationship with that landscape and its relationship to the characters? 

I love our jungle. It's just so wild, so dark, and so violent, but also so full of life. There's no human interaction with it. It's just how it is. And I think that part was really important to me, mainly because here we have this character who has nowhere to go when she needs a lot of questions answered. She has nowhere at home, nowhere at school, and even her friends are not there for her. So she goes to the place where she feels most comfortable, and that is nature and the water. It's where she really figures out and learns about herself and her body, which is also wild, violent and beautiful at the same time.

While watching it, it was strange to see how relatable it was and how many memories it brought up. How did it feel for you to immerse yourself again in the vocabulary, the nastiness and anger, but also the humour of teenagers and young girls?

I love it. Now looking back at it, of course, it's humorous and you kind of laugh. Writing it, especially the characters and what they go through, saw me drawing back all these very strong memories of what almost shaped you into who you are today. And then drawing from a lot of people I knew growing up as well, and the relationships that we had. It was really fun, honestly. I think you can see that in the tone of humour that I have in the film as well. I think I look back at it with a bit of humour, but also it hurts at the same time.

 

What do you hope audiences take away from Tiger Stripes? I've heard that you had censorship issues in Malaysia, which obviously affects the message of your film, but also informs it.

In terms of the censorship, we did it for Oscar-qualifying reasons. We had to do a theatrical release, otherwise I don't think I would have, because the way it was cut just removed the whole point of the film, this girl's freedom and her freedom to be herself. That was not allowed. I was telling everyone in Malaysia, ‘Please don't watch it. Wait, I'll find a way to make sure I get the full one out.' 

But beside the point, what to take away from it depends on who you are, right? Either you sit on the side where you feel like she should be punished and that she deserves all the shit, all the tribulations. Or you're on the other side, where you relate to her. You believe that everyone has a right to be freely themselves fully in the most beautiful way and have that celebrated. I think that's what her journey is fighting for, and eventually, there's a bittersweet ending, but there's always love at the end. You'll always find someone there for you.

Zaffar's transformation into a creature is so curious. With the bright eyes and the VFX, she looks so cool, but also kind of campy. How did you come up with the look of the creature?

That took a while to develop because I was trying to communicate to people this notion that it's beautiful, powerful, cool, ugly, and also really campy and tacky, and people were like, ‘What the fuck?' So I had to go back and look at the old horror films that we had, these black and white films of our folk creatures, that looked gnarly and bizarre and kind of campy and comical, but also terrifying. I was looking at how our creatures looked, and at the same time, inspired by this Islamic horror digest called Mastika, which is out of print now, but it has weird, kooky, bizarre horror stories in there. And it used to have these watercolour paintings that were really strange and funny at the same time. I love how it ended up, because it is exactly how I feel our monsters are.

There is definitely playfulness to the look too, like the brightness of the eyes. The first time I saw it, I did laugh, but I think that's a good thing. Because I think if I was 12 and I was turning into a monster, I'd also want to have bright pink eyes.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, the pink eyes were another twist to it, because we usually have creatures with bright red eyes.

Not my tiger.

Yeah, my tiger's got pink eyes! [laughs] So yeah, I had a lot of fun with that.

Let's talk about some of your references and some of your inspirations. What to you was most foundational to Tiger Stripes other than, well, the grounding experience of growing up?

Well, that first! Mean Girls was a huge inspiration for that. It's one of my favourite films. And then in terms of the imagery, it was definitely this film called Hausu (1977), which is this Japanese 70s film with girls, and cats, and blood, and friendships. Totally bizarre, really nuts, with flying heads and fingers. I love that. It's so crazy. And the black-and-white horrors from Malaya. Specifically, there is a trilogy about a Pontianak, made in the 1950s, filmed by the Shaw Brothers and also by Cathay Studios. I think parts one and two have disappeared because of dramatic reasons, some wife dumping [them] in a river. But Part three is on YouTube. Dracula is such an iconic character on the silver screen, but she [the Pontianak], she's our Dracula. She's been on the silver screen since the 50s and still gets made into films here. I made a short film about her as well, It's Easier to Raise Cattle (2017), so it's a huge inspiration.

All of your work explores mythology, monsters and Malaysia. Where do you hope for your next project to take you?

The next project that I'm working on is going to deal with themes of motherhood, expectations of a wife within a family, or within a Chinese family in an Asian context. But it will probably get violent, bloody, and sad. 

Tiger Stripes is released in UK cinemas on 14th June 2024 and VOD on 19th July 2024.